Charles de Gaulle: The Last Romantic
“The facts may prove me wrong,” Charles de Gaulle one day declared to his Finance Minister, Antoine Pinay, “but history will prove me right.” To which M. Pinay replied: “But, mon Général, I thought history was written with facts.” Today many of the facts are known, but President de Gaulle's ultimate historical destiny is as unpredictable as ever. Curtis Cate, who represents the Atlantic in Europe, here probes the strengths and failings of one of the most complex Frenchmen of our times.
Léon Noel, the former ambassador who is today president of the French Constitutional Court, enjoys recalling how one day during Dr Gaulle's exile from power he happened to be talking to some workers in an industrial suburb of Paris. Suddenly he switched the conversation to the General, whose admirer and friend he had long been. There was a moment of silence, and then, to his amazement, one of the workers pulled off his rap, and one after the other followed suit. It was as though the ghost of the “Grand Charles” had walked by in person, tearing from these freethinking proletarians an unexpected, grudging gesture of respect.
This incident is typical of a career which has flouted every canon of political success in our vote-cajoling, demagogic age. Charles de Gaulle has always understood that the quest for immediate popularity and power is an essentially ephemeral pursuit and can at worst be a betrayal of a nation's trust. For a dozen years after World War II, he sat out the petty bickerings and intrigues of Paris parliamentarians. He lived in provincial simplicity on a colonel's meager pension in the little village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, not out of any love for the hermit's life but because he knew, with that mixture of prophetic genius and personal self-magnification which is so peculiarly his, that he must remain the undimmed mirror of his country's self-respect. Already in 1944, while the guns were still firing, he could announce to Pierre Bertaux, the Resistance leader: “I am retiring. I have a mission, and it is coming to an end … France may still one day need an image that is pure. She must be left this image. If Joan of Arc had married, she would no longer have been Joan of Arc.''
In these lapidary words, in which politics is implicitly treated as defiling and marriage as sullying, is distilled the heroic, pathetic grandeur of a man whose philosophy owes as much to the inspiration of the classic French stage as to the mundane exigencies of twentieth-century politics. This philosophy is clearly the opposite of Dale Carnegie's: it is a gospel of heroic intransigency, not one of suppliant blandishment, and it is based on an ever-readiness to antagonize rather than on a relentless desire to please. To no other statesman of our time would it have occurred to preface a book on the art of leadership with this quotation from Hamlet: “Rightly to be great is … greatly so find quarrel in a straw.” In his memoirs he recalls how Anthony Eden one day chided him on this singularly mulish gift: “Do you know that you have caused us more trouble than all the rest of our European allies?” “I do not doubt it,”was the superb reply. “France is a great power.”
It is characteristic of De Gaulle that he should have made a virtue of his notable lack of the usual political graces. He has none of the expansive charm of a Franklin Roosevelt nor the sweeping oratorical power of a Winston Churchill. He is better at writing speeches than making them, and his delivery, usually deliberate and unemphatic, is seldom more inspiring than a schoolroom lecture on the declension of Greek nouns. He lacks that personal bonhomie which is a prime political prerequisite in this democratic age, and he has, very likely, never slapped a back in his life. The statesman he most resembles, in his stiffness and in the intensity of his inner, prophetic vision, is doubtless Woodrow Wilson.
One of his classroom notebooks, preserved from the days when he was a nineteen-year-old cadet at the Military Academy of Saint-Cyr, contains this revealing quotation from a book, Le Reveil de la Race, written by an eccentric uncle: “In a camp surprised by a night attack, where each fights alone against the enemy no one asks the rank of the one who raises the flag and utters the first rallying cry.” Twenty years laser, we find him, now an obscure major in the Defense Ministry, with his eyes still trained on the heights. “Nothing great is done without great men, and these are great because they willed it,” he proclaims in Le Fil de l'Epée. “From adolescence on Disraeli accustomed himself to thinking like a Prime Minister. In Foch's classroom lessons the Generalissimo is already apparent.”
What we encounter here is not simply a relentless ambition; it is a deliberate magnification of the ego, which has no French equivalent unless we go back to the Romantic Age, which made such a cult of what Sainte-Beuve called l'exaltation du moi. The turbulent France into which De Gaulle was born in 1890 seems to have impelled him early in his life toward the kind of inflated pride and inward-looking self-reliance typical of the Frenchmen of the chaotic post-Napoleonic years. Here was a country which had taken a disastrous second fling at being an empire, had lost a star, been amputated of a province; a land torn by the hitter feuds of monarchists and republicans, Catholics and anticlericals, militarists and pacifists, and held together by one aspiration: the reconquest of Alsace-Lorraine. Add to this the bitter disappointment an ardent young lieutenant must have felt having to sit out must of the long-awaited War of Revenge in German prison ramps; the disillusionment of having to witness the postwar repudiation of Clemenceau by his fellow politicians; the personal exasperation an ambitious military theorist must have suffered at having to endure the somnolence of the French general staff, entrenched behind the turrets of the Maginot Line, while the Germans adopted his own ideas of warfare, reoccupied the Rhineland, and undid every guarantee and protection France had fought and bled for in four terrible years of trench warfare—and it is possible to get a fair idea of the pressures which helped to forge one of the most exalted and determined egos of this century.
In a report on his behavior which has been preserved at the École de Guerre in Paris, one of De Gaulle's instructors noted: “Looks like a king in exile.” The author of this caustic comment could not have guessed that in less than a dozen years this haughty major would pick up the tattered mantle of French sovereignty and wrap himself in it as proudly and intransigently as any Bourbon proclaiming the divine right of kings. Nor could he foresee that once this mystic investiture had been accomplished, no poster on earth could persuade him to relinquish it.
When, in August of 1944, De Gaulle made his triumphal entry into the Hotel de Ville in Paris, one of his companions regretted that the windows were not open so that the General might receive the acclamations of the crowd massed outside to hail the re-establishment of the Republic. “It is unnecessary,” the General answered calmly, “for the Republic has never ceased to exist. I was the Republic.” Three years later he wrote to Léon Blum, Prime Minister for one month, to refuse the Médaille Militaire which the French government wished to confer on De Gaulle, as well as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, on the grounds that it was inconceivable that the French state, which he had “personified and directed” from June 18, 1940, to January 22, 1946, should decorate itself. Nor has the passage of time done anything to temper this monarchical pretension; in his televised speech of last January 29, which quelled the Algiers uprising, the old words crept beck as naturally, as inevitably as though they were enunciating a self-evident truths: “By virtue of the mandate the French people have given me and of the national legitimacy I have incarnated for twenty years …”
Taken literally, this can mean only one thing, and that is that the twenty-five governments which ruled France from February, 1946, to May, 1955, were illegitimate. And there can be little doubt that this is the General's intimate conviction. They were illegitimate because, though officially invested by parliamentary majorities and votes of confidence, they did not and could not faithfully express that exalted vocation, that "general will" which Charles de Gaulle is persuaded only he has the force of character, the perspicacity, and the prestige to define and implement.
To see in this simply a dictatorial pretension is to miss the pathetic irony in the conflict which lies at the heart of the General's political philosophy. For if Charles de Gaulle is destined to become a dictator, it can only be, as Molière would have depicted him, as a Dictateur malgré lui. There are two principles, two instincts, two natures within De Gaulle which have never been quite reconciled. On the one hand there is the man of letters, the son of an instructor of philosophy and history, who has a deep reverence for the literature of France and who believes, like Voltaire, in freedom of speech—that freedom of speech for which he offered a stirring apologia in his Bayeux speech of June, 1946. On the other hand there is the would-be man of action, the prophet, the “guide,” as he designates himself in his memoirs, who, like Rousseau, bewails the crippling divisions of opinion which have so often paralyzed his country’s politics, inhibited its foreign policy, and fatally undermined its prestige abroad.
The impatience the General has frequently displayed toward the French Assembly is not simply due to a personal unfamiliarity with and distaste for the rough-and-tumble of parliamentary life; it stems no less strongly from his deep-rooted conviction that it is here that France's “ferments of dispersion” find their most active and potentially destructive expression. It was for this reason that, immediately after the war, he adamantly opposed the re-establishment of an omnipotent French parliament. He rightly foresaw that in a country with such a spectrum of political opinion an omnipotent assembly was doomed to be impotent.
On this score we need have few doubts: the French Assembly's vote of last February which granted the government full powers to deal with the Algerian crisis was the logical outcome to a preordained development. It was, in fact, little more than a formality, for the French parliament had long ceased to be a really vital force in French politics; the legislature had surrendered to the executive. And we may be reasonably sure that should the Assembly ever dare to reassert its old prerogatives, De Gaulle would not hesitate to dissolve it and to call for new elections.
De Gaulle is too shrewd a judge of the temper of his people not to know that the suppression of freedom of expression in the press—it has already been seriously curtailed in the government-controlled radio and television—would plug a vital safety valve and provoke an explosion. But he is no less convinced that only he is endowed with sufficient elevation of vision to give the French that push, that “breath from the summits,” as he calls it in his memoirs, which will pull them out of their national rot and forward and upward toward the fulfillment of that grandiose, cloud-girt destiny he has not ceased to preach and prophesy.
One day, aboard the steamer Caledonien which was carrying him from the French Antilles to Tahiti, the General offered his companions a rare glimpse into his youthful past: “When we were children,” he reminisced, “we often played war. We had a fine collection of lead soldiers. My brothers would take different countries: Xavier had Italy; Pierre, Germany. Or they would swap around. Well, I, gentlemen, always had France.”
Charles de Gaulle’s romance with France has undoubtedly been one of the great love affairs of this century, and it has exhibited all the blindness, the jealousy, the selfishness that a grand passion invariably engenders. During his twelve years of exile from power, he never once set foot on foreign soil. The only trips he made abroad being limited to French overseas possessions. It was not just that leaving the toil of France would have seemed to him a betrayal of his trust as the self-appointed guardian of French grandeur; but why be tempted to visit foreign countries when one has the good fortune to be a citizen of a universal land like France?
What foreigners have found unforgivable about this passion has been the General's consistent claim that France's greatness demands out only the acknowledgment of her traditional pre-eminence as the mistress of the mind, the arts, and of haute couture, but recognition, in every sense—politically, militarily, colonially—as a great power. Critics, both inside France and abroad, have ridiculed this pretension as a case of national megalomania, a pathetic effort to emulate the frog which, in La Fontaine's fable, wanted to blow itself up to the size of a bull. They have denounced the pretentiousness of the heavy franc; they have raved against the inanity of exploding a French atomic bomb, arguing, as Antoine Pinay argued against De Gaulle, that it represents an absurdly wasteful duplication of scientific effort, that any country with the money and the technicians, even Switzerland or Holland, could explode an atomic bomb if it so determined, and that the explosion, once it occurred, could only prove dramatically, conclusively, pathetically that “France is twenty-five years behind the United States.” They might all just at well have been addressing a stone wall. For De Gaulle politics it not primarily the are of the possible; it is the art of the willed.
The General's view of France and the world is, indeed, no more than an amplification of his own personal creed. For him, life is essentially Darwinian. It is a never-ending struggle for the survival of the fittest, and the fittest are those possessed of the greatest will to assert themselves. “The iron role of states,” he writes in the third volume of his memoirs, “is to give nothing for nothing.” No love is lost in this jungle of conflicting egotisms. Each state must, as in Machiavelli's The Prince (and De Gaulle is, in the profoundest sense, a Machiavellian), rely solely on itself for its survival and success. There is no use in counting on the friendship or generosity of any foreign country, not even of an ally like Britain, nor of a long-standing and generous friend like the United States, for the friendship or generosity that they may manifest is not disinterested and is exhibited first of all to promote their own various national interests.
It is an ancillary axiom with De Gaulle that different countries' interests vary, above all, according to the particular circumstances of their geography. There is a revealing sentence in his memoirs in which he remarks that the interests and policies of the United States, Britain, and France will never completely coincide; the United States, as a continent, always tending to think in terms of air power; Britain, as an island, in terms of naval power; and France, in terms of land power. This passing observation not only explains the General's persistent effort to get France accepted as a full-fledged member of the guiding triumvirate of the Western alliance; it also explains the emphasis he has placed on a rapprochement between France and Germany, a rapprochement which it would be a mistake to say he inaugurated, since it was inaugurated years ago by such eminent Europeans as Winston Churchill, Robert Schumann, and Jean Monnet, but which he has undoubtedly greatly furthered. This rapprochement,which may turn out to be De Gaulle's greatest contribution to the present international scene, has not been motivated by any sentimentality, or even by his admiration for the sterling qualities of Chancellor Adenauer, an ex-resister against Nazism like himself; he has been motivated quite simply by his realization that France and Germany, as the two most important territorial units of Western Europe, share the same fundamental vital interests, and thus are doomed, whether they like it or not, to live or die together.
It is the same line of reasoning which has led the General to anticipate the day when the United Stases will no longer wish to maintain an army in Europe; nor does he believe that it is healthy for a country like France to rely passively on others for its defense. It would be a miracle for the interests of the United Stases and of France always to coincide, and since at Suez the proof was dramatically afforded that they do not, France must be the mistress of her fleet in the Mediterranean.
Just as no human being becomes great without constantly willing it, so no nation can become great, or even stay great, without a ceaseless exercise of the national will. It is because of the will to freedom of the people of Berlin that this bastion of liberty must be defended to the bitter end and that no concession must be made to Soviet pressure. It is on the collective will of the African peoples that the structure of the French Community reposes. Where, as in Algeria, a hostile will has manifested itself, it must be opposed by a counterwill, an Algerian will, which is nevertheless sympathetic to France. And if, as in France itself, no such will seems to exist, then it must be creased and inculcated, if necessary, by artificial respiration.
Several months before his return to power in 1958, De Gaulle was visited by the journalist Jean-Raymond Tournoux. In the course of their conversation, the General recommended that his visitor ponder the passage in Roger Vailland's La Loi in which the retired officer and country landlord, Don Cesare, reflects on the “Portugalization” of his country:
One summer, as his way back from London and before taking the boat from Valencia to Naples, he had stopped off in Portugal. He had given much thought to the decline of this nation whose empire had once girdled the globe. He had come to know writers who wrote for no one; politicians who governed for the British; businessmen who were packing their affairs in Brazil and living off small incomes in the towns and provinces, without aim in life. It had occurred to him that being born Portuguese was the worst of misfortunes. In Lisbon, for the first time, he had gotten to know a people who had less interest.
Today, he thinks that the Italians, the French, and the English have lost interest, in their turn. Interest has emigrated toward the United States, Russia, China, India. He lives in a country that has disinterested itself, with the sole exception of the Northern provinces—but this is only an appearance, the Northern Italians, like the French, smothering their disinterest in the noise of their automobiles and scooters. The Italians and the French began to Portugalize themselves after the Second World War.
“For the moment,” the General observed to Tournoux, in commenting on these paragraphs, “the French are thinking about their standard of living. This is not a national ambition. In the meantime, other peoples are thinking less about their standard of living, are conquering the world, and are conquering it without even having to fight for it … The mainspring of a people is ambition,” he continued. “France has successively had the ambition of the unity of its frontiers, the gospel of the Revolution, the domination of Europe, the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine, and finally, the liberation. Today there is no collective ambition.” These words reveal an acute understanding of the dynamics of French history, and they conjure up that huge question mark which has long haunted the historical imagination of Charles de Gaulle: How is France to avoid such a “Portugalization” in its turn?
It is here that we first glimpse that gap between thought and action, between analysis and program, which has perhaps been the salient characteristic of the General's exalted experiment in romantic statesmanship. The analysis, here, as in virtually everything he has attempted, has been surer than the prescription; the diagnosis more pertinent than the cure. Try as he might, De Gaulle has never really managed to give this national ambition a clear definition or direction. For a while, together with his intellectual disciple, André Malraux, he toyed with the idea that as the Voltairian haven of the most unorthodox, heretical, and revolutionary ideas, France has the mission of providing a philosophical synthesis between East and West, between capitalist America and Communist Russia. But the tentative efforts that have been made, both after the war and, more recently, at the time of Khrushchev's visit to France, to implement this philosophy have done little to excite the imagination of the French people.
The General has also been much tempted by the idea that France has an African destiny. This is, almost certainly, a more realistic notion, and the Franco-African Community is, along with the new Constitution, one of De Gaulle's few concrete realizations since his return to power. But just what the future of this Community is likely to be is a mystery, and here, too, in the face of practical difficulties, the ideal has tended to dissolve in a mist of Gallic skepticism.
Still, the General is persuaded, the country must be galvanized, the national heart stimulated, the people exhorted, even if it is not quite clear what the exhortation is for. This is the explanation for that often vapid and pompous grandiloquence which has characterized many of his speeches, an oratorical style relying heavily on what an irreverent critic, Jean-Francois Revel, has aptly called the use of “hyperbolic truisms.”
“We are the great, the only, the unique French people,” he declares at Vichy on April 16, 1958. “France is on the march toward a great destiny,” he informs the population of Nevers on April 17, 1959, “All France, the whole world is witness to the proof which Mostaganem has brought us today, that all the Frenchmen of Algeria are the same Frenchmen,” he proclaims to his Algerian public on June 6, 1956. These rhetorical incantations are employed to make the people of France and of the French Community feel that in some mysterious way they are embarked on an exalted enterprise and that in some glorious, though intangible, way, France is climbing out of the abyss and toward the “heights”—a favorite De Gaulle word. Though the precise geography of these heights is misty, what matters is momentum.
After the war there were Frenchmen, like Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, who thought that the one cause which could enlist general enthusiasm in France and transcend the sterile doctrinal quarrels of the past was the creation of a United States of Europe. De Gaulle refused to lead his prestige to this undertaking, not only because of his military conviction that all patriotism is essentially local and that without patriotic fervor nothing worth while can be accomplished; not only because he saw in European integration a threatened leveling of all those national, provincial, and cultural diversities which have been the source of the peculiar richness of European civilization; but also because he detected in the establishment of a European executive and parliament a threat to that national sovereignty which he had so jealously and intransigently assumed in June of 1940, an inadmissible intrusion on his private, passionate love affair with France.
Had the General remained in power after 1946, it is quite conceivable that he, would have done nothing to oppose the establishment of the Steel and Coal Community or, later, the European Common Market. As early at 1946 De Gaulle was talking about the need to “organize Europe” and, more specifically, to create a “Western bloc” comprising the present members of the Common Market, with the addition of Spain. The political and economic pressures resulting from the crippling divisions of Western Europe vis-à-vis the monolithic Soviet bloc would almost certainly have forced him along this path. Those who were apprehensive that he would take France out of NATO and the Common Market overlooked a cardinal tract in his political philosophy that France, or any nation, must respect its international treaties. It was because the Pétain government unilaterally abrogated the solemn wartime pledges made to Britain by its predecessor that De Gaulle raised the standard of revolt in 1940. He did not need to be told that if France were to repeat this performance in 1958 or 1959 by walking out of NATO or the Common Market, no one could ever take the word of a French government seriously again.
The new Constitution which De Gaulle pushed through in the summer of 1958 has momentarily given France a more stable form of government. The Debré ministry, which has already lasted longer than any of the twenty-five previous French governments, would, under the Constitution of the Fourth Republic, already have foundered. This longevity has given France a rank in the international councils of the world that it has not enjoyed since the days of Clemenceau and Poincaré; yet this standing is essentially precarious, simply because beneath a surface mask of tranquility the French body politic is in a state of unrest which only the tall, commanding figure of Charles de Gaulle has kept under control. Now, as in former times, France is living from day to day.
The cause of this unrest is the problem of Algeria. We may well have to leave it to future historians to determine whether in the summer of 1958 it was still possible to wrench some peaceful settlement of the Algerian imbroglio with a minimum of bloodshed. But it already seems clear that the General complicated an arduous task by the hesitations he displayed in tackling the problem. Instead of forming a government primarily designed to deal with the Algerian crisis, he composed one which seemed more tailored for business as usual. The inclusion in it of such familiar holdovers flout the Fourth Republic as Guy Mullet and Pierre Pflimlin, the stubborn Alsatian whose ill-guarded suggestions of negotiating with the rebel organization had precipitated the Algiers putsch, destroyed any illusion that the new government—“one half graveyard, one half administration,” as André Malraux aptly described it—might represent a clean slate. It seemed designed to proclaim that the new regime wished not to break with the hated system but to perpetuate it.
The key Ministry of Defense was entrusted to a technocrat, Pierre Guillaumat, only too well known for his sympathies for Mendès-France, the French politician most hated by the army. This was an open challenge to the military rebels in Algiers, and it immediately aggravated the already difficult task of overcoming local resistance and of re-establishing the authority of the Paris government on the other side of the Mediterranean. To compensate for this appointment, De Gaulle was forced to offer the key Ministry of Information to Jacques Soustelle, one of the principal plotters of the May 13 uprising, who did not hesitate to use his office to give the General's Algerian policies an extremely tendentious and at times deliberately fallacious interpretation. In a similarly offhand manner, De Gaulle offered the premiership to Michel Debré, who has probably outdone Soustelle in trying to torpedo the General's efforts to obtain a negotiated settlement of the Algerian problem. The present administration has thus degenerated into a private civil war fought out between two clans, one faithful to De Gaulle and the other to Debré and the “ultras.”
This almost studied carelessness in the choice of his political associates is the General's cardinal failing as a statesman. Administrative questions and problems of execution are irksome to him. “I always take the most elevated point of view,” he one day explained to Rene Mayer, the former Premier. “It is the least encumbered.” “I never concern myself with the quartermasters. It's their job to follow,” he declared on another occasion. In itself, this unconcern would not be too damaging—for it is a fact that De Gaulle has managed to enlist two able Finance Ministers to help him—were it not accompanied by such a disdain for problems of human administration. It seems to be De Gaulle's conviction that the privilege of serving under his orders is enough to transform the most humdrum politician or unqualified bureaucrat into a loyal and effective leader of men. When Paul Delouvier, a financial expert who had no qualifications for the job, was invited to become Delegate General in Algiers and dared to suggest that he was not big enough for the post, he was promptly silenced. “You will grow,” was the General’s Olympian commandment.
In failing to put together a government primarily designed to deal energetically with the Algerian crisis when he took office in 1956, the General no doubt feared, as he had feared in 1945, that a period of authoritarian rule would be denounced on all sides as a form of Gaullist dictatorship. Yet it now seems clear that it would have been wiser to have taken this risk than to allow the situation to drift along aimlessly in a strange twilight mood. Thanks to this indecision, the General allowed the enthusiasm generated on both sides of the Mediterranean in May and June of 1958 to congeal at a time when he could have demanded considerable sacrifices from his people for a more intensive prosecution of the war, as for a bolder pursuit of the peace. So slow and ineffective was he in imposing the authority of his government over the dissidents that he allowed General Salan, who had as many enemies as friends in Algiers, to remain in charge of the Algerian military apparatus for more than six months, and when he finally succeeded in removing this devious political general, he could find no one better to replace him than an Air Force general totally lacking in prestige.
De Gaulle's early trips to Algeria—the first that any French Prime Minister had dared to make to this turbulent laud since Guy Mollet's disastrous reception of February, 1956—served the essential purpose of demonstrating the unique prestige enjoyed by the “great white Marabout of peace,” as the General was then known to many Algerian Muslims. His visits to the army in the field, whom he found full of bellicose ardor and fired with a positively missionary zeal for the building of a new Algeria in which Muslims would enjoy equal rights with Europeans, inevitably awoke a nostalgic echo in a man who has always regarded the French army as the chief instrument of France's glory and the guardian of its patriotic flame. He retained sufficient sang-froid to avoid, save in one speech, endorsing the cabalistic slogan “Algérie Française,” thus clearly intimating that he had serious reservations about the feasibility of turning Algeria into a land of ten million Frenchmen. At the same time, he met the apostles of integration more than halfway by declaring that Algeria's Muslims must become “equal-sharing Frenchmen” and by allowing them to advance their cause on the terrain of deeds. The Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which did not mention Algeria, made it clear by implication that Algeria's departments were simply a trans-Mediterranean extension of metropolitan France, a status which was confirmed when the population of Algeria was invited to take part in the September referendum and to elect some seventy deputies to the new National Assembly in Paris. The fact that two thirds of these had to be Muslims could not mask the truth that this was integration in everything but name.
The General's Algerian policy was henceforth in open contradiction with his African policy, which he had founded on the right of self-determination. Any attempt to adopt a policy other than that of integration was now bound to demand either a revision of the Constitution or, as has in fact happened, a bland disregard for the Constitution. Naturally, these measures were interpreted by the rebel leadership in Tunis as a victory for Jacques Soustelle and the partisans of a French Algeria, and they reacted to them, first by declaring a boycott of the September 28 referendum and then by establishing a provisional government in exile, a fateful move which was bound to hamstring all subsequent attempts to reach a meeting of minds between Tunis and Fans.
Everything De Gaulle has done since then has been a prolonged endeavor to escape the implications and to reverse the tides of this policy. His refusal to clarify his own position on the Algerian question created a vacuum in the election of November, 1958, into which rushed the vociferous champions of Algerian integration. Since the Sphinx would not speak, they would speak for it. The result was that incredible spectacle of a raggle-taggle caravan of genuine Gaullists, die-hard chauvinists, and carpetbagging ramp followers who rode into the Assembly brandishing the tricolor of integration and noisily proclaiming their eternal love of General de Gaulle, and the no less incredible dismay evinced by the General before the sweeping success of his own supporters.
As the General could not repudiate his own followers overnight, ten months had to pass before he could finally undertake to make it clear, as he did in a speech in September, 1959, that the future of Algeria must be settled by the Algerians themselves in a free vote. Even then, four more months and an abortive putsch in Algiers were needed to force him to come out definitely and to state what had been his conviction all along: that the Muslims are not Bretons or Alsatians (a phrase he had used long before his return to power), that Algerian integration was a utopian hope, and that site only feasible solution as an Algeria associated with France. In retrospect, it seems clear that he missed a historic opportunity in the autumn of 1958, immediately, after his impressive referendum triumph of September, in not inviting the Sultan of Morocco and Bourguiba of Tunisia to Paris to help lay the groundwork for a possible long-term solution of the Algerian problem along federal Swiss or Lebanese lines, which he could have taken to the country for approval in the elections of that November and which he might eventually have been able to negotiate with the rebel leaders in Tunis.
Such an initiative might well have precipitated an uprising in Algiers similar to that which was touched off last January by the removal of General Massu; but there can be little doubt today that the great mass of the French people and a sizable portion of the army would have reacted to such an event as they did last January—by lining up behind De Gaulle. The General would have gained a whole year that was dissipated in ambiguous statements and governmental cross-purposes, which have had the unfortunate result, with the Muslims in Algeria and with the F.L.N. leaders in Tunis, of gravely weakening his prestige and the belief in his liberal intentions.
No conceivable course of action could have been exempt of risk. It must also be said, in the General's defense, that the Arab rebels have done little to aid him in a thankless task. One of the tragedies of the Algerian conflict is that it has been unable to produce a Makarios, still less a Bourguiba, invested with the prestige needed to channel the destructive forces of a ravage revolt toward a feasible diplomatic or political solution; all it has brought forth is an insecure leadership, which has usually been too frightened to meet De Gaulle halfway or to renounce publicly its murderous vendetta with the rival Muslim independence movement of Messali Hadj, for fear of being denounced as selling out to the enemy by the combatants in the field.
And so today the task of ending an interminable war is heaped more than ever on the lonely head of Charles de Gaulle. Destiny seems to have decreed that he must carry his country's cross to an end which is more likely to be bitter than glorious. This spectacle has in it some of the inexorability of Greek tragedy, as though the avenging Furies were not to be cheated of the vengeance they would wreak on this egregious mortal for his overweening ambition.
“This is my home,” he writes in the last, lyrical pages of his memoirs, where he describes his post-war retreat to the little rustic village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. “In the tumult of men and events, solitude was my temptation. Now it is my friend. With what other should one content oneself when one has made a rendezvous with history?”
These solemn words were premature, for that exalted encounter is not yet finished. Nor can one say for sure just how it will end. But should it end in tragedy, it will be more than one man's lot; it will be that of an entire people. For, in his heroic failings as in his virtues, Charles de Gaulle is typical of France. He is the product of a hyper-intellectual country whose entire educational system for the past two generations has been geared to the hothouse cultivation of “thinking reeds.”
It has been France's peculiar lot—not once, but twice in two decades—to have brought forth in the supreme hour of need not a leader of men, but a man of ideas; not a practical politician, like a Clemenceau or a Churchill, but a visionary seer; not a man of action, but a man of the mind, who by an awesome effort of will made himself into a man of the sword.
“Nothing enhances authority more than silence … Prestige cannot exist without mystery,” De Gaulle could write some thirty years ago. Though it was the example of the great Napoleon which inspired this reflection in Le Fil de l'Épée, it is clear that this is essentially a theatrical prescription for inspiring awe and hero worship. The General's predilection for lofty, sibylline statements, the deliberately Bourbonic pomp with which he has invested his presidential functions at the Elysée Palace, and above all, his systematic refusal to sully his hands with petty problems of human administration—all are characteristic expressions of a romantic's philosophy of government; a philosophy which probably owes less to the practical counsels offered in Cardinal Richelieu’s Political Testament than to the heroic models of Corneille and Racine, whose stately Alexandrines De Gaulle is so fond of quoting.
Only too often, indeed, it has seemed as though for the General the art of political leadership was not so much a matter of action as of representation, less a question of energetic decision than of dramatic pretense. It is this tendency to view his office as essentially ceremonious and symbolic which has caused the General's numerous critics—and they include Frenchmen as experienced and astute as Pierre Mendès-France and the political economist Raymond Aron—to diagnose him as a toaster of political camouflage. For France's long-term problems, he has provided not genuine solutions but tranquilizing palliatives. The Algerian problem continues to fester, and in the bellicose climate it engenders, all sorts of evils and abuses continue virtually unchecked, from torture and intimidation in Algeria to utterly arbitrary sciences of critical newspapers and weeklies in Paris. The new Constitution is so full of ambiguities and contradictions that, though unquestionably an improvement over its predecessor, it is not expected to outlast the man for whom it was tailor-made. The French Community, which the General launched in a rather precipitous fashion and on the risky assumption that it could be established prior to and apart from a solution of the Algerian question, has all but burst apart at the seams.
Even France's economic and financial stability owes as much to the programs and initiatives undertaken by governments which immediately preceded De Gaulle's—notably Felix Gaillard's program as Finance Minister and Jean Monnet's trip to Washington in January of 1958—as to the orthodox financial policies which Antoine Pinay imposed on a General who has always been socialistically inclined in his economic beliefs. So, too, the exploitation of the oil of the Sahara and the development of an atomic bomb owe their realization, at least in part, to earlier governments' initiatives. Only in the foreign, and particularly European, field—and this is the one area of government in which De Gaulle is truly interested—has the General given France's policy a personal impulse, direction, and steadfastness of purpose worthy of a Clemenceau or a Richelieu.
We can only hope that the Cassandras are bring too somber in their pessimistic predictions. But often of an evening, when De Gaulle can escape to the sylvan quiet of his beloved Champagne, the suspicion may arise in the mind of this essentially diffident, introverted man that the motto he chose as a preface for his little gospel of leadership some thirty years ago (“Rightly to be great is … greatly so find quarrel in a straw”) might one day be destined, by a cruel twist of fate, to receive a mocking echo in this no less Hamletian postscript:
The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set is right!